Northern Natives Tenacious in Preserving Cultures

ReutersKoryaks performing a traditional song in June in Pimchakh, Kamchatka.
PIMCHAKH, Kamchatka Region -- Listening to enigmatic Koryak-language songs and eating traditional salmon soup and cutlets in this village, it is easy to imagine indigenous cultures still thrive on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

In fact, it is only the sheer tenacity of local Koryaks, Itelmens, Evens and other aborigines that keeps centuries-old customs and languages from dying out in the wild Far East after much was eroded by Soviet rule.

"Native people must live on. Without them this land will be poor and it will be impossible to bring any meaning to this land," said Vera Koveinik who heads the ethnic community of Pimchakh, 40 kilometers from the regional capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

When Russians began settling in Kamchatka in the second half of the 17th century, up to 11,000 Koryaks lived here fishing, herding deer and hunting whale and walrus.

Three centuries of pervasive Russian and Soviet influence and intermarriage have left an indelible mark on Kamchatka's Koryaks, who now number around 7,300 -- by far the largest indigenous group on the peninsula.

"Everyone of my generation speaks the Koryak language, knows the customs, dances, dishes like in the ancient times. But some of our children don't know anything at all," said folk performer Lidia Chechulina, slightly breathless after dancing to the beat of a deer-skin drum and the music of her own voice.

Her songs, sung in a guttural language reminiscent of Chinese, describe the beauty of the tundra, volcanoes and the sea, she explained. She said that songs, one for each person, accompany Koryaks all their lives and act as a charm.

"Our parents preserved everything as it was before the [1917] Revolution," said Chechulina, a small, bubbly woman in her 50s.

Probably the most effective Soviet assimilation policy was that of forcibly putting Koryak children in state-run boarding schools to teach them the Russian language and customs.

"The Soviet culture was imposed on them," said Andrei Samar, a researcher at the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the People of the Far East.

Since the children came back home only once or twice a year, he said, they knew very little about their native culture let alone traditional skills such as the difficult and dangerous trade of hunting at sea.

Some of those children, now adults, and their parents are actively working to revive indigenous cultures.

A large number of schools offer classes in the Koryak and other aboriginal languages as an extracurricular activity, and families observe ancient holidays. There are also efforts to expand deer herding in regions where it is dwindling rapidly.

The Pimchakh community organizes summer camps in the village where children learn about ancient traditions and do crafts.

The regional government says it runs cultural programs and also provides financial aid for ethnic communities.

But Koveinik said there were no signs in Kamchatka in any of the indigenous languages and no monuments to celebrate the aboriginal culture and history.

"The government probably helps somehow. I don't know, I wouldn't say so," said Chechulina, wearing a traditional suede-and-fur overcoat, a headdress made of beads and soft leather boots meant to protect from moss and mosquitoes in the tundra.

Hardly any aborigines wear such costumes every day and many are university-educated, but the way they talk retains traces of their ancient spirituality rooted in the shamanism that is still practiced.

Pimchakh leader Koveinik, an Itelmen, told the audience after the community ensemble's performance that they were privileged.

"You are today the richest people, you've received so much power and energy," she said.